Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis, has been serving his role as the 266th pope – and the first ever Latin American and Jesuit pope – of the Roman Catholic Church for 3 years now. In a 2015 interview, Pope Francis reflected on his pontificate and said, “I have the feeling my pontificate will be brief: four or five years; I do not know.” If the pope’s pontificate turns out to last 4 to 5 years, it would be considered among the shorter pontificates. Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, served for 8 years, and Benedict XVI’s predecessor John Paul II, served for 27 years. By comparison, it seems that Pope Francis’ pontificate has only just begun. Nonetheless, it is still worth taking a look at the kind of changes that Pope Francis has ushered in so far during his pontificate.
During the course of his 12 international trips, visits to 20 countries and every continent except for Antarctica, Pope Francis has left an indelible impression on the people he has listened to and blessed, while also carving out a new space for papal politics. He has visited several countries in his native continent of Latin America, including: Mexico (February 2016), Cuba (September 2015), Bolivia, Paraguay, and Ecuador (during his 8-day South America tour in July 2015), and Brazil (July 2013). He is scheduled to visit Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and Brazil again, in 2017.
A notable characteristic of Pope Francis’ international trips is that they include, whenever possible, visits to prisons and slums. During his visit to Bolivia, the Pope visited Santa Cruz-Palmasola, the country’s largest prison. He spoke before a crowd of approximately 2,800 inmates in the male facility and told the group, “I could not leave Bolivia without seeing you.” Similarly, during his visit to Brazil in 2013, Pope Francis sought out the favela (slum) communities. While in Rio de Janeiro, he dismissed security concerns and walked through the Varginha favela, which used to be located in an area that was known as ‘the Gaza Strip’ due to its rife drug and gang activity and high levels of violence. To the immense crowd that gathered on a heavily guarded football pitch, Pope Francis imparted the following: “You are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good. To you and all, I repeat: never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change.”
Pope Francis has made no bones about his commitment to helping provide a voice for individuals at the lowest rungs of society who are cut off from participation in and access to resources, and relegated to indefinite abject living conditions. Further, the Pope has carefully and clearly articulated his rejection of injustice, inequality, and greed. This was perhaps most evident during his visit to Paraguay when he delivered an electrifying speech in which he denounced the pursuit of material wealth as “the devil’s dung” and apologized for the Catholic Church’s “sins” during the era of colonialism in Latin America. While the Pope’s choice of language may strike some people as too strong or not suitable for a pope, his fervent concern for individuals on the lower rungs of society, and his unabated criticism of injustice, greed, and the modern capitalist system, can be traced back to his humble background and simple lifestyle in Argentina. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he served as the city’s archbishop from 1998 to 2013, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church of Argentina from 2001 to 2013, and president of the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina from 2005 to 2013. While he was archbishop, Pope Francis lived in a small bedroom that was equipped with a portable heater for when the central heating in the building automatically turned off on the weekends. He also preferred to cook meals for himself, take the bus instead of being driven to work, and dedicate his time to fighting the plight of the poor, especially those living in Buenos Aires’ slums and prisons, which he regularly visited. Pope Francis was, and continues to be, known in Argentina as one of the great champions of the poor.
In addition to championing the poor, the Pope has also played an instrumental role in fostering peace and reducing tensions in the international political arena. One such instance was the watershed restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2014. Pope Francis’ part in organizing the secret discussions between Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro that eventually led to one of the most groundbreaking and transformative historical moments in U.S.-Cuba relations is lesser known, however. In fact, it can be said that the reconciliation process only began after the Pope sent letters to both presidents in the summer of 2015, urging them to repair the fraught relationship between their countries.
Given all the aforementioned, there is no doubt as to the fact that Pope Francis has charted a new papal course, whose implications have been far-reaching and consequential. And given his line up of Latin American countries to visit in the next year, among several other non-Latin American countries, we can certainly expect to see Pope Francis’ international stature and influence grow and develop.